Ticks – how to spot and get rid of them

Featured image source: bbc.com

Ticks are not passengers you want to encourage, either on your skin or on your pets. Ticks can share some nasty diseases although most tick bites are harmless. The trouble is you don’t know the status of the tick that has just latched onto you. Ticks can cause Lyme disease plus a couple of other illnesses. They transmit Lyme disease if a tick has bitten an animal already infected with Lyme disease, and then bites you.

What is a tick?

A tick looks like a little spider, that is before it bites you. They are usually pretty small and one difference you might easily notice is that they have two curved front mouthparts which resemble crab pincers and it is these which they use to latch onto their unsuspecting victim. They can be seen with the naked eye but are often so small they are easy to miss.

How do ticks end up on human skin?

Ticks do not jump or fly but just latch onto the skin of passing traffic, particularly in long grass. Neither you nor your pet will feel the bite which is why it is so easy for them to hop on board without being noticed. The tick will feed on the blood of its host becoming so engorged that it will swell to several times its original size becoming far more visible on human skin – they look like small flat grey slugs – but they can still remain hidden amongst animal fur or long hair. 

Once they have had their fill, ticks will drop off naturally. Many animals find them irritating and try and remove them by scratching.  The danger with this is that they remove the tick but the mouthparts remain in place and this can easily set up an infection.

Where do ticks live?

Ticks inhabit grassy areas, particularly long grass.  Some areas of grass may carry a greater density of ticks than others.

Ticks can climb tall grass and wait to snag an animal’s fur or your denim jeans – Image source: UC ANR

What is Lyme disease?

Lyme disease is treatable and treatment is more effective if the disease is identified early; the challenge with tick bites is that if the tick drops off then you may not be aware of the bite.  Most people do see the tick though if it is present for several hours or even days.

The first visible sign is a red, circular rash that develops on the skin around the tick bite.

What does a Lyme disease rash look like? Image source: NHS UK

This rash can take up to three months to appear, hence the difficulty of catching and treating Lyme disease early, however, most rashes appear within the first four weeks on average. The rash can be a solid red color or there can be a smaller red circle within a large red circle, a bit like the bullseye on a dartboard.

The complication with Lyme disease is that not everyone gets the rash; some people just have flu-like symptoms such as fever, headaches, aching joints, and muscle pain, and a feeling of exhaustion and tiredness. 

Some people who contract Lyme disease may develop more serious illnesses months or even years later.  There is a greater risk of this if treatment is delayed or even absent because there has been no telltale rash and the symptoms have been confused with another viral illness.  The more serious form of Lyme disease will include nerve problems such as tingling sensations, numbness or pain, heart problems, and memory issues.

There are blood tests to confirm a diagnosis of Lyme disease but these are not always accurate in the early stages and can give a false result and come back negative. A re-test is usually recommended if symptoms persist.

Ticks can also cause Colorado Tick Fever and Rocky Mountain Spotted Fever.

How to get rid of ticks

When removing a tick either from your own skin or that of an animal, it is important to remove the tick in its entirety; if the mouth parts are left behind then this can set up a secondary infection.

  • Tick removal tools like tick keys or tick hooks are the way to go.  For just a couple of dollars, you can buy two different-sized hooks. Slide the hook which has a curved end carefully underneath the tick.  Do not pull but just gently twist in a circular rotation and the tick will come away completely intact.  It is worth carrying a tick hook with you if you regularly walk your dog in long grass
  • Fine-tipped tweezers are another option as they can help you grasp the tick.  Don’t yank at the tick but pull steadily with even pressure, don’t twist, this is not a tick hook.  If you are rough then you could cause the mouthparts to break off and remain in the skin
  • There are some branded chemical-based flea treatments for cats and dogs which also rid them of ticks but some people are not keen on using toxic chemicals on their pets or within the home.  A homemade solution of vinegar diluted so one part vinegar to one part water can kill ticks and prevent new ones from latching on. Use a plant spray to spray on your pets being careful to avoid their eyes

How to minimize ticks in your home environment

Ticks can migrate indoors on a pet but most ticks won’t stay there as they cannot either survive or reproduce.  So any that you inadvertently bring indoors, will eventually die. Outside in your garden, one of the best remedies is to keep the grass on your lawn short and well-manicured. Try to avoid building up rough areas which are left to run wild and if you are lucky enough to have deer wandering in and out, you could install stock fencing during the warmer months between April and September.

Things to avoid when removing a tick

  • Don’t try and burn the tick off with a match – your dog or cat will probably object to this as well
  • Do not smother the tick with Vaseline or another form of oil
  • Do not use alcohol to remove a tick
  • Follow authoritative instructions to remove a tick, like these from University of Manitoba tick expert Kateryn Rochon:

Prevention is better than cure

Minimizing the chances of being bitten will help protect both you and your pets from unwelcome passengers and reduce your possible exposure to tick-borne diseases. Cover your skin whilst walking outdoors, particularly in long grass – tuck long trousers into your socks and wear light colors. Ticks are usually quite a dark color so are easier to spot on light-coloured clothing.

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